Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Saturday touted the fuel facilities and public works projects his government has built in the Caribbean in an effort to make inroads in a region where the United States has long been dominant.
The fiery leftist leader, on a tour of the region, also called on Caribbean nations to join his fight against U.S. hegemony.
“Down with U.S. imperialism! Long live the people of this world. We must join together and we will be free,” Chavez said at the site for a new airport on St. Vincent. Venezuela and its close ally Cuba have provided $200 million for the airport.
In a wide-ranging speech, Chavez blasted the North American Free Trade Agreement, which combines the markets of the United States, Canada and Mexico, and promoted his socialist political movement loosely based on the ideas of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
The crowd, however, did not respond with applause to the Venezuelan leader’s vitriolic statements.
Earlier, Chavez unveiled a plaque on St. Vincent marking where a fuel storage facility will be built and visited a liquid natural gas facility constructed under his Petrocaribe program. Petrocaribe, an agreement between Venezuela and 14 Caribbean countries, offers deferred payments and long-term financing for fuel shipments.
U.S. still key trading partner
Petrocaribe is widely seen as a bid by Chavez to vie with the United States for influence in the Caribbean. The United States is the biggest trading partner of most countries in the region and their largest market for tourism.
Many Caribbean countries are still buying oil from elsewhere, including oil- and gas-rich Trinidad and Tobago, where the prime minister has resisted the Venezuelan initiative and traded barbs with other regional leaders over the deal.
On Friday, Chavez visited the mountainous, forested island of Dominica, where he addressed a crowd at a new fuel storage tank built by Venezuela, one of five facilities the oil-rich nation has pledged to construct there.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit also announced his government’s acceptance of a Venezuelan offer to build an oil refinery that would process some 10,000 barrels a day.
“We shall make no apologies ... that President Chavez is our friend and the people of Venezuela are our friends,” Skerrit said to widespread applause.
Chavez assured Dominicans that the construction of an oil refinery would not harm the ecology of the island, which promotes itself as an ecotourism destination. Conservationists have objected to the plan, fearing the environmental impact.
“We did not come to pollute your country,” Chavez said.
Dominica — one of the Caribbean’s poorest countries whose economy — has also received asphalt, university scholarships and $12 million for housing through the Petrocaribe initiative.